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White House Still Faces Problems, Uncertainty : Politics: Sununu opens way for better-liked successor but leaves Bush without a key man on brink of ’92 race.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In all but dismissing Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, President Bush has effectively decapitated a White House team that for three years relied on the former New Hampshire governor as its eyes, ears and brain.

And, although some Republicans hailed Sununu’s departure as a necessary step to set the White House on a better course, they also cautioned that Bush may still be left adrift at the outset of a presidential campaign unless deeper problems can be solved.

“It’s like firing the manager,” one prominent GOP source said. “There’s no guarantee that it will end the losing streak.”

At its most immediate level, the forced resignation eliminates a man who in some Republican circles had been blamed for disdaining advice and guiding the White House into blunder after blunder while Bush’s popularity plunged.

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And after three years of strain that often deteriorated into shouting matches, it is all but certain to improve relations between the White House and Congress and within the Administration itself, where Sununu showed little deference even to powerful Cabinet secretaries.

But if it opens the way for a better-liked successor, the departure of Sununu also leaves Bush without the lightning rod that helped protect him from criticism--and it leaves the White House without a key player at the brink of a presidential campaign.

“There’s a certain degree of uncertainty and apprehension at what comes next,” a White House official said. “You’ve got to remember that Sununu did some things right. The trains ran on time. And the history of these bloodlettings has not always been sanguine.”

“Sununu did the right thing” by agreeing to resign, another senior White House adviser said in describing the mixed feelings of longtime Bush loyalists. “But now the President is going to have to go into the campaign without an experienced team in place.”

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And in what some warned could be a further danger to the President, the move muffles the voice in the White House that conservatives had come to regard as their own. It could provoke a backlash among GOP right-wingers already grumbling about a too-moderate Administration.

In a last-ditch effort to hang on to his job, Sununu himself had appealed to conservatives for public declarations of support. By Tuesday evening, right-wingers who only hours earlier urged Bush to retain his chief of staff were predicting unsettled times ahead.

“Everything that comes out of the White House for the next few weeks will be examined and deeply interpreted as to how they might have been different if Sununu were still there,” said William J. Bennett, a prominent conservative and the former chief of the Administration’s anti-drug efforts.

“You’d have to be blind not to see Pat Buchanan rustling out there and things like that,” Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) had warned earlier in the day in a pointed reference to the conservative columnist who may challenge Bush for the Republican nomination.

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“If I were George Bush,” Weber said, “I would not now want to cast aside the best liaison I have in the White House to the conservative wing of the party. I think that will make things worse for him, not better.”

White House officials conceded that anger from the right could pose a problem for Bush, particularly if Sununu’s successor proves to be Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, a former Illinois prosecutor without strong conservative credentials.

With Sununu expected to stay on as counselor to the President for at least the next few months, however, his continued presence in the White House may help to mollify such discontent. That the man who has maintained such a stranglehold over White House operations will not clean out his desk immediately was seen by some Republican officials as a reason to hope for a measure of stability.

But without its dominant chief, a White House staff disparaged in some Republican circles as “John Sununu and a thousand interns” also could be exposed in new ways.

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“There aren’t a lot of superstars around here,” one White House official conceded. “It’s not like under the Reagan days, when you had a weak President and a strong staff.”

From his West Wing suite of offices, Sununu maintained a control that extended over virtually every matter that reached the White House, exercising a stranglehold over domestic policy and political and speech-writing operations that aides say has been tighter than that of any previous chief of staff.

At Cabinet-level meetings, Sununu exercised his influence from a perch at one end of a long table. Together with Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who sat at the opposite end, Sununu interrupted and even shouted down powerful Cabinet officials.

In private meetings of the senior White House staff, Sununu was said to have been even more ruthless, squelching dissent by “cutting off at the knees” anyone who challenged established policy, a White House official said.

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And if senior White House officials sought to take their case to Bush, Sununu so resisted what he regarded as an usurpation that he would remain in the room, sometimes glaring at the offenders from the background.

The result has driven from the White House some of the few Bush aides who had the stature to stand up to Sununu. And with those subordinates who are left having been forced for so long to remain in the shadows, even Bush loyalists said it was an open question as to whether the staff could exercise a larger role.

“We’ll just have to see,” one longtime Bush adviser said. “People in one environment who are thought of as inadequate sometimes flourish when they get a new boss.”

With Bush prepared to launch his reelection campaign, White House officials and prominent Republicans said they were thankful that Bush had forced Sununu to a decision now, before the drafting of next month’s crucial State of the Union address.

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“Unless a new chief gets in on the takeoff, it would be more difficult for him to carry out these plans,” one senior GOP congressional aide said.

GOP COALITION FRAYS: Survey finds voters no longer see themselves as better off than in past years. A21


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